There is one review for the record-breaking video game Red Dead Redemption 2 (RDR2) that stands out on Metacritic, the entertainment review aggregation site.
Slant Magazine’s 3.5 out of five stars review, which translated to a critic score of 70 on Metacritic, is the only rating that is highlighted in yellow in a sea of green, near-perfect, scores on the site. The reviewer, freelance journalist Steven Scaife, has received violent threats for his critique.
As is common in online forums, the 673 comments (at time of writing) under Scaife’s article and social media posts that mention his review range from encouraging to outright menacing (“Kill yourself,” one commenter wrote). Some of the issues that Scaife pointed out in his review, such as clunky game controls or the glossing over of topics like race and politics, were mentioned in other publications too. But reactions to the piece in Slant Magazine seemed especially intense, and also reflect how controversial game reviews can be as a whole.
There is no doubt that RDR2, which is a game about robbing and fighting your way through the US’s old West to survive, has been wildly successful. The game generated $725 million in revenue its opening weekend, the most in entertainment history, and has received mostly rave reviews. But the debate around Scaife’s article isn’t necessarily about the game itself: A lot of criticism accuses him and Slant Magazine of having a political agenda and deflating the rating to increase traffic to Slant’s website. (Some tweeted that Slant Magazine regularly gives ratings that stray from the status quo.)
In addition to the backlash on Twitter and the article on Slant itself, Scaife told Quartz that some people have attacked him on his personal accounts, including a threat sent to his Facebook. Scaife acknowledges, however, that he has had some positive feedback, and “as a cisgender man, I do think I’ve been spared a lot of the targeted, gender-motivated harassment that can crop up in the video game community.”
And judging by the discussion online, the gaming community is also divided on whether Slant Magazine’s review warrants such aggressive responses. Many users in the comment section came to Scaife’s defense, and pointed out that commenters threatening violence would only project a negative view of video game players. When one user commented that it would be easy to find where Scaife lived, several others emphasized how problematic that was.
“People like you are who they get to point at and say ‘look at how toxic all of you are,” one user named “Serventine” wrote in response. This same line of argument was also highlighted in the video game forum Resetera in a thread titled, “The response to Slant’s review of Red Dead 2 represents everything wrong with gaming.”
The most heated reactions to Scaife’s review certainly don’t represent the entirety of gamers or gaming culture, but they do bring to mind some of its darkest moments, like “Gamergate.” In 2014, what feels like a lifetime ago in internet years, some gamers claimed that reviewers weren’t covering games fairly or were influenced by feminist or racial agendas. This eventually turned into blatant sexism and physical threats on mainly female game developers and journalists.
Gamergate-supporters adopted the acronym SJW (meaning “social justice warrior”) to insult liberals and progressives, arguing that political intrusions detracted from the point of playing a video game (this sentiment was echoed in responses to Scaife’s review, and in the comment section of Polygon’s). And while the reactions to Slant Magazine don’t seem as serious as the original Gamergate (the FBI was involved to investigate threats), the term SJW can be found consistently throughout the negative comments on Scaife’s review, which regularly focused the discussion on Scaife’s perceived political leanings rather than the game itself. One user called “Blink8533” wrote, “There we have it, the snowflake liberal review. Keep your SJW crap out of the review next time.” It also appeared on Twitter:
But as one user speculates, the Gamergate-like reactions were exacerbated by Slant Magazine’s comparatively low score for the game, rather than just the review itself. A commenter named “LippDogg” wrote: “Seriously, if you read the review and didn’t see a score there would be about 10-20 fairly mundane comments here, not 600+ of hateful bile.” It’s also not unusual for pushback of reviews to come from those who haven’t necessarily played the game yet. Scaife said this is likely because some believe the “game merits a higher score because they can plainly see that a ton of time, money, and effort went into it.” That effort itself, however, is not without controversy: RDR2’s developers reportedly worked 100-hour weeks during the period known as “crunch,” the lead-up to the game’s launch when employees must work unreasonable hours to finish and polish the game in time.
The contrast of Slant Magazine’s yellow 70 on Metacritic against all the other green scores, more than half of which are perfect 100s, also makes it seem especially contrarian (the threshold for yellow/green is 75). “I think collecting different reviews in one place is extremely useful, but I also think it feeds this mentality that everything needs to be in agreement rather than allowing for other perspectives,” Scaife said.
Some gaming sites agree: Numerical ratings are helpful but can also be reductive, and publications like Kotaku and Eurogamer have long stopped giving review scores because of this reason. When Eurogamer announced this change in 2015, it also noted that Metacritic’s scores can cause “a stifling of variety in critical voices.” This issue has also been discussed in respect to aggregator review sites for other industries, such as Rotten Tomatoes, for its lack of diversity in its critics.
RDR2 still has an overall score on Metacritic of 97 and it doesn’t seem like Slant Magazine’s review affected the game’s ability to become a massive success so far. (Rockstar Games, RDR2’s developers, did not immediately respond to requests to comment.) What the heated debate around Scaife’s rating has highlighted, however, is that dissenting ratings can open up old wounds and spark discussion about much more than the game where you pretend to be a cowboy.